On a scorching August afternoon, University of Missouri senior Beth Melenbrink lugged the last of her clothing and boxes into a Copper Beech apartment and took stock of her new surroundings.
“It’s brand new and spacious, and there were plenty of apartments available,” Melenbrink said, explaining why she chose to spend her final undergraduate year in the sprawling complex several miles south of campus. “And it was a good price.”
Copper Beech Townhome Community, a 216-unit apartment complex on Old Highway 63 South, opened this year and is one of many new apartment complexes south of town.
The new complexes include Deer Valley Apartments, a nearly finished 228 unit complex located on Green Meadows near Nifong Boulevard, and CampusLodge, a 768-bed apartment complex that opened last year.
MU has been involved in a spacerace of its own. About 1,000 more beds will be available this fall as construction wraps up on four new dorms, said MU Department of Residential Life Director Frankie Minor.
The current vacancy rate for apartments is unknown, but some bankers, real estate agents and rental property owners say they’re noticing a significant oversupply.
The president of the Columbia Apartment Association, Bonnie Fischer, declined to supply the results of a survey conducted from January to May of this year, saying that the survey was for paying members only, it covered only a very small percentage of apartments and that she could not be sure that the responses offered were truthful.
But Barbara Nickerson, a rental property owner and former officer in the association, said she fears that Columbia is overbuilt when it comes to apartments.
“It’s hurting a lot of people because there’s a lot of empty units,” Nickerson said.
An average of 860 apartment units per year were built in 2003 and 2004, according to a survey by Moore and Shyrock, an appraisal firm. Records from the Columbia Public Works Department of Protective Inspections show that 688 new units were built in 2005.
U.S. Census Bureau figures show that from 1990 to 2000, the vacancy rate in Columbia’s rental housing rose from 6 percent to 6.2 percent, before the building boom occurred.
One thing is certain: the number of potential renters in Columbia is growing.
From 1990 to 2005, the city’s population grew by 25.7 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In just the two-year span between 2003 and 2005, the population grew by 1,800, data from the city of Columbia’s Web site show.
Enrollment is also up at again at MU, with 27,985 students enrolled in the fall semester – an increase of over 4,000 students since 2001. Enrollment at Stephens College has also been on an upswing.
Although that increase means a higher demand for Columbia’s rental housing, it may not be keeping up with the rate of building.
“I’m concerned that there is a lot of overbuilding going on,” Minor said. “In speaking with some of the apartment managers, they’re in a lot of competition with each other, causing them to have to keep rates lower.”
Some properties are hoping to avoid high vacancy rates by targeting graduate students and young professionals.
Deer Valley Apartments is one such complex, requiring occupants to be at least 22 years old.
Ashley Bodnar, a leasing agentwith Deer Valley Apartments, said that although just one building in the complex is complete, all 24 units are already leased. Features such as built-in bookshelves, recessed lighting, and a fitness room are attracting renters to the complex.
Minor said that many of MU’s older dorms were built for students who would bring only four of five appliances, while today’s students usually bring 20 or more and plug them into the same two or three outlets in their rooms.
“Our plan was not to significantly add to bed count but to upgrade facilities and bring them up to today’s standards,” Minor said. “The needs of students have changed dramatically from the time these halls were originally built.”
The number of MU undergraduate students living off campus rose 4.2 percent from 2004 to 2005, reaching 13,062. But enrollment has increased at such a fast pace that there also have been a few hundred more students living on campus in recent years.
Minor argues that that living on campus means better academic performance for students.
“We may not be able to offer Jacuzzis and tanning beds, but we can offer students something that is important to their success in college by offering personal attention and academic support,” he said.